Capitalism and Pollution: A Way Out?

There have been hundreds of books dedicated to the subject of environmental destruction. Very few of them have addressed the subject in terms of the economic system most of the world’s inhabitants struggles under. Indeed, as the first Earth Day in 1970 shrinks further into the distance of time, it is corporations that try to convince us that, despite being the cause of most of that destruction, they can also be the remedy. Grasping at straws while we watch our woods, waters and fields become more polluted by the day, many of us believe the commercials from Exxon and BP when they tell us they are green, even though we know better. In addition, we go along with the consumerist schemes to alter our way of living to a more ecologically sound one, even though these actions make very little difference in a world of corporate pollution.

Author Chris Williams does not believe that capitalism can solve the pollution problem it has created. In his new book, Ecology and Socialism, he not only refutes the corporate claims that they care about the environment and are working on halting its devastation; he argues that capitalism is the cause of the bulk of that devastation. Operating from a well-reasoned hypothesis that (put simply) because capitalism needs to expand it can not halt environmental destruction, Williams discusses the history of capitalist destruction of the environment and its supposed solutions. While he doesn’t dismiss all of the schemes proposed by corporate entities to ease the earth’s environmental demise, he points out that the dominant capitalist enterprise in the modern world revolves around the procurement and utilization of fossil fuels, Because of this fact and the easy profits to be made from this fact, the corporate world has no reason or will to change. The ongoing wars for energy market domination prove this again and again.

Williams describes a Marxism that is holistic and sees the earth and its systems, human beings and economy as an organic whole. Capitalism cannot see the world in a similar manner because of its dependence on exchange value instead of use value. In other words, its need to profit and the consequent history created by that need has produced a situation where things are produced because they make a profit, not because people necessarily need them. Nowhere perhaps is this more obvious than in the auto industry. Williams writes that over 30 million new cars are produced every year. The amount of work-hours and resources put into this process could be diverted into producing a transportation system that would not only be environmentally viable, but would serve the needs of a greater population. Yet, there is no profit motive (certainly not on the scale of the world’s automobile industry). The point is that production for profit is environmentally unsustainable. Production based on need is.

What about the former Soviet Union and China? Weren’t they socialist economies and didn’t they cause a lot of environmental destruction? It is Williams’ contention that these economies were much closer to a form of state capitalism than socialism. While leftists might debate this question to the end of time, the fact is that most of the enterprise in those two countries during the historical moment they called themselves socialist did meet the accepted left description of state capitalism: a system which utilizes the wage system of producing and appropriating surplus value in a commodity economy controlled by the state apparatus. Of course, since both economies are now capitalist, it doesn’t really matter too much what they were then.

George W. Bush once stated that the United States was addicted to oil. It was one of the few truths he ever spoke. It was also accepted without a blink by politicians and citizens alike. When Williams discusses the extraction of oil from shale and tar sands, I could not help but think of a practice undertaken by heroin junkies. For those who don’t know how oil extraction from shale and tar sands works, I will attempt a brief description of the process. The oil substances in oil shale are solid and cannot be pumped directly out of the ground. The oil shale must first be mined and then heated to a high temperature. The resulting liquid must then be separated and collected. Sometimes the oil is heated to liquid underground before it is extracted.

The junkie process I am reminded of goes like this. Before an addict shoots heroin into his vein, he must first dissolve the powder in water. This is sally done in a spoon which is heated with a lighter or match. After the drug dissolves, the addict draws up the liquid from the spoon into a syringe. In order to keep undissolved additives from entering the solution in the syringe, the addict usually places a piece of cotton in the liquefied solution in the spoon. He then draws the liquid through the cotton “filter.” Most junkies do not throw away the cotton. Instead, they save it for a time when they have no access to the drug. When this occurs, they soak the cotton in water and draw the water (which has taken the heroin residue from the cotton) into the syringe. Drawing oil from tar sands is not too different and is representative of the nature of our oil addiction. Other parallels can be seen in the nature of actions undertaken by corporate America and its citizens in our pursuit of oil to feed our addiction. The aforementioned wars and the current oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico are but the most obvious of these.

Ecology and Socialism is not merely about what’s wrong in the world where fossil fuels rule our lives. It also presents a blueprint for change that could conceivably diminish certain key indicators used by environmental scientists to determine the earth’s health. The basics of this blueprint revolve around the use of solar and wind energy on a scale never before seen. Of course, such a plan flies against the powers that be and their blueprint to extract as much profit as they can from the diminishing supply of fossil fuels. This, writes Williams, is why nothing, not even reforms like the development of wind and solar farms, will come about without a popular movement demanding them. The technology already exists, he continues, but the demand for it must be vocal and large. That is where we come in: the building of that movement.

Like the other titles in this nominal series from Haymarket Books in Chicago — Women and Socialism, Black Liberation and Socialism, Sexuality and SocialismEcology and Socialism provides a cogent and accessible look at one of today’s pressing social issues through the viewpoint of socialist activists and thinkers.

Ron Jacobs is the author of The Way The Wind Blew: A History of the Weather Underground and Tripping Through the American Night, and the novels Short Order Frame Up and The Co-Conspirator's Tale. His third novel All the Sinners, Saints is a companion to the previous two and was published early in 2013. Read other articles by Ron.

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  1. MichaelKenny said on August 19th, 2010 at 12:12pm #

    I’m glad to see that the idea that the communist dictatorships were not in any way socialist is starting to get through! However, it DOES matter what you call the economic system they used since it was that system, whatever you choose to call it, which caused far more environmental destruction than whatever system was operated in Western Europe at the same time. The latter point is interesting because if you say that Western Europe is “capitalist” and that the US is also “capitalist”, sincethere seems to have been a lot more environmental damage, as well as a much lower environmental conciousness, in the US than in Western Europe, where Green parties are regularly in government, then this “capitalism” cannot be the cause of American environmental damage.
    The other point which is certainly in Mr Jacobs’ review and probably also in the book is the simplistic American “end of history see-saw” idea that there are only two possible ideologies, something called “capitalism” and something called “socialism” and that if “capitalism” causes environmental damage, socialism, by definition, must not, for no reason other than that it is “not-capitalism”. A more likely conclusion is that materialist ideologies of all kinds, including marxism, will inevitably lead to environmental destruction and that the future lies in a new, non-materialist ideology, which seems to be crystalising among the young, at least here in Europe.

  2. lichen said on August 19th, 2010 at 3:08pm #

    Another stupid book from an outsider that doesn’t even acknowledge, let alone try to listen to and join with the real environmental movement–which has nothing to do with pseudogreen corporations. Plenty of us have already called for using only wind, solar, tidal, and geothermal energy. Pretending that there is only ‘Beyond Petroleum’ and this ideologue in the world is a pathetic fiction. Fighting capitalism is an abstract battle that does NOT get to the point. If you want capitalism to end, then by all means fight it, but do so with your own energy, your own time, your own people–not by attempting to condescendingly co-opt someone else’s movement which you know nothing about.

  3. Don Hawkins said on August 20th, 2010 at 4:04am #

    Amazing to watch this if you turn on the tube the ad blitz for the elections has already started mindless it is and yet made to seem so important. We all this very second should be fighting what in many way’s is already here and what’s to come but oh no mindless ads mindless commercials mindless talk from mindless heads. Well not exactly mindless does take some thought to say drill baby drill or we are watching out for you fair and balanced or that person is out of touch with the American people the oil is gone go fishing go shopping call call now. We have only been told over and over again what I wrote next well in between mindless for about 15 seconds then move on to more mindless. One thing for sure when we shift into second gear so to speak and life on Earth becomes very difficult to support life as for many already happening then what? Well so far the big plan appears to be a few very few will go hide in a secure location like frightened little mice what a vision.

    From the beginning of preparedness in 2011 , American leaders recognized that the stakes were too high to permit the change over from fossil fuels to clean renewable energy to grow in an unfettered, laissez-faire manner. American manufacturers, for instance, could not be trusted to stop producing consumer goods and to start producing materiel for the change over.

    To organize the slowdown of the economies Worldwide and to ensure that it produced the goods needed for the changeover , the federal government spawned an array of mobilization agencies which not only often purchased goods (or arranged their purchase) , but which in practice closely directed those goods’ manufacture and heavily influenced the operation of private companies and whole industries. On going talks with China and India were spawned with agreement’s to share all research working together was for the first time achieved.

    Solution therefore required a rising fee on oil, gas and coal – a carbon fee collected from fossil fuel companies at the domestic mine or port of entry. All funds collected were distributed to the public on a per capita basis to allow lifestyle adjustments and spur clean energy innovations. As the fee increased, fossil fuels were phased out, replaced by carbon-free energy and efficiency. Farming practices Worldwide began to change and those that needed help got help. Did we all live happily ever after no but it was a start and America for the frist time began to lose weight.

    A straight line may be the shortest path between two points, but it is not necessarily the fastest way to get where you want to go. Ladies and gentlemen, you’re entering the wondrous dimension of imagination, next stop…………………………………………….. thanks T42 the wondrous dimension of imagination and to listen to mindless from these so called leaders is that imagination yes and a very old way of thinking called stuck on stupid. Look at me look at me am stupid come join me it’s fun and buy my new book buy my new product got to run now places to go people to meet. I think the wind is about to change and so far in the tool box is orange chicken, golf clubs, mindless, PR, more ad blitz and the truth matters such it does.